Why archaeology needs Game Developers and Other Nerds*

I recently discovered the wonderful online magazine, Love Archaeology, created and run by postgraduate students at Glasgow University. This discovery in itself merits the creation of a blog post (I strongly recommend checking it out, the thing has a wonderful feel – a mix of enhusiasm, knowledge and general good spirits!), but it also links nicely on to a little archaeology rant that I’ve had brewing up inside for almost a year now.

The third issue of Love Archaeology considers how the study of material culture in imaterial worlds – that is, fictitious creations such as novels and popular games like the Elder Scrolls arc that have their roots firmly placed in our own, human archaeologies – can contribute to archaeological thought. This sort of thing has been hovering on the edge of my brain for god knows long, but I never quite took notice. Clearly I am preoccupied by the past, and that preoccupation has made its way into my hobbies in the form of nerdalicious pursuits such as the playing of Skyrim for really quite unreasonable amounts of time, and the perhaps more honourable act of reading great works of fiction such as George R. R. Martin’s epic political medieval fantasy. I’ve always maintained that I’m an archaeologist for the sole reason that I am also an escapist, and I very much enjoy pretending that the real world doesn’t exist by immersing myself in other worlds, populated by our ancestors. I suppose it just didn’t occur to me that this is exactly what a very large percentage of the population in most developed countries is doing as well.

Does this make us all archaeologists? I certainly believe it means we all think like archaeologists. Or does it mean that archaeologists think like humans? And I suppose that is indeed the goal – to get inside the heads of our human ancestors.

Anyway, I digress. The above discussion is a very interesting one, and one which I might attempt to pursue and perhaps somehow twist into something resembling a thesis. My main point for this post was, however, why the world of archaeology needs game developers and other hardcore gaming-type nerds in general.

This is an opinion that I’ve been brewing ever since somewhere around the middle of my third year studying for an Archaeology BA at Cardiff. I shall illustrate it with this beautiful piece of artwork that I stumbled across whilst surfing the web. Okay, I didn’t stumble across it at all, I was actively seeking out epic bits of concept art for the aforementioned Skyrim.


(c) Bethesda Studios 2011. Art by Adam Adamowicz. Cross section view of a long hall built by the fictional race who live in Skyrim, the Nords.

This wonderful piece of art was released in 2011 previous to the release of the actual game, Skyrim, the fifth in the Elder Scrolls series. The games are set on the fictional continent of Tamriel, of which Skyrim is a northern province (imagine mountainous landscapes filled with viking-esque settlers and warriors). More images belonging to the same collection of concept art can be found here.

Anyway, I digress once again. My point is… my point is just look at the above image. It looks like an archaeological reconstruction. Or rather, the best archaeological reconstruction anyone has ever seen, ever, in the history of archaeological reconstructions. The image clearly shows both the interior and exterior of the building. It shows the different stages of the build, and the contents of the building, the way it would look if it was occupied by people. The attention to detail is absolutely stunning, and the skills with which is was drawn are undoubtedly phenomenal. This is the sort of digital art that the archaeological world desperately needs.

The people who develop games like this are clearly extremely creative individuals. They’re also clearly hugely talented. We need them.

We are living in an increasingly visual world. In general I think people don’t read as much as they used to, and engage with their real and virtual environments in an increasingly  visual and visceral way. I feel like one of the main things holding archaeology back (don’t get me wrong, archaeology is definitely going places,  just a bit slower than the rest of the world) is our lack of ability (or reluctance?) to represent our findings and our theories in a visually creative and accessible manner. Although deeply rooted in academic scientific knowledge, archaeology is also fundamentally linked with the imagination, and in order to communicate the results of our imaginings, we need to use creative means. I’m interested in the way that archaeology has been artistically represented in the past and, although I’ve barely scratched the surface, what I’ve found has been pretty dire most of the time.  I’m not saying that there are no archaeologists who are good at drawing, definitely not. And I’m not saying that there aren’t some instances of really great visual representation in archaeology. What I think is probably the case is that most archaeologists are so preoccupied by their own research that they cannot bring themselves to spend huge amounts of time representing the things that they simply want to know more about. Or perhaps more realistically, and more depressingly, we simply don’t have the means to fund the creation of such effective images. I know if I was as gifted as the person/people who drew those images linked above then I’d be letting Bethesda pay me handsomely to do their concept art rather than trying to get penniless archaeologists to pay me for interpretive drawings.

Something that I’ve found during a large amount of the class discussions for my MSc in Digital Heritage at York has been that there are so many ways in which archaeology could be headed, making the digital dissemination and preservation of archaeological knowledge more effective and more widespread, but there is this one, terrible looming factor that holds us back. The ever-essential financing that would make such endeavours possible.

So what I would suggest, then, is that we communicate more with the people who have got all the skills and resources to produce such inspiring and imaginative creations. They’re already doing an archaeology of their own, what’s stopping them from getting involved in our archaeology as well?

*By ‘Other Nerds’ I mean ‘Other Hugely Specialised and Talented People’. Obviously.


18 thoughts on “Why archaeology needs Game Developers and Other Nerds*

  1. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology #BlogArch – All of the Responses to the best and worst posts | Doug's Archaeology

  2. The brand new Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre puts visitors into a 30-player battle simulator game that uses LiDAR and a host of other academic input for authenticity. Before there’s a 3D immersive Prepare for Battle Space. Whole project £9m, interpretation £2.5m. It’s very popular. Our twitter feed has some great photos of it in action. @brightwhiteltd

    Made in York!

  3. Interestingly, I came to this post in a search for 3D representations of actual historical sites as inspiration for creating an imagined city for a pen & paper role playing game!

    I have always been interested in history, seeking the ‘immersive’ details – how they lived rather then the exploits of their leaders – and when I was a teen (a dim historical recollection) I based my fantasy worlds on real world concepts. Culture, languages, weather, demographics were explored to flesh out my creations, real world ideals taken in slightly different directions, to create a world players could feel the pulse of a different existence.

    Eventually I enjoyed the creation more then the application of these ‘worlds’ and I didn’t need to create them for players to stomp around in anymore. Currently revisiting the hobbies of my youth, I realised after playing games like Skyrim, where you could enjoy all the visual trappings of created ancient culture (as well as explore relics of races you never meet outside the archaeology they left behind – Dwarves) that making 3D environments for gaming should include inspiration from archaeology rather than just use standard recycled themes.

    I believe I am not alone in seeking a solid basis for my fantasy, as “Game of Thrones’ Political machinations is based on the war of the roses (excluding magic & dragons obviously) and after having the pleasure of briefly working at the Weta Workshop (Makers of props for Lord of the Rings & The Hobbit) I saw the passion and eye for detail of the designers and craftsmen that flesh out the worlds we visit cinematically. Videogames & movies have used ‘crowd sourced’ content to create media assets (e.g. ‘Iron Sky’ developed forums where fans made 3D models for use in the movie, and were awarded credits or even ‘speaking parts’ in it) and archaeology could benefit from similar arrangements.

    While involving volunteers that may not have the scientific principles that may be necessary for good archaeology, I believe the cost of not moving forward with technology may be great. It has been noted that the general public learn more about history thru movies (and absorb their inaccuracies) and this ‘competition’ should inspire the historical community to get their message across using all means necessary.

    Bit of a lengthy post, but you would be surprised at the enthusiasm of armchair explorers of knowledge, now able to venture into worldwide communities and get involved in areas otherwise closed to them. Good luck with your thesis, and I hope that an ‘marriage’ between the archaeology community (nerds with trowels) and the gaming community (nerds with computers) as well as 3d artists, prop makers, etc could create a better understanding of our past, as well as embellishing our movies & games with items that could have been the pride and joy of our ancestors

    • Dale,

      Thank you so much for this brilliant comment – really fab!

      I agree so much with what you say here, and it’s great to see that people who aren’t from the academic side of the archaeological community are having the same thoughts as I am!

      I was particularly interested when you mentioned prop-makers and 3D artists – I think those who are involved in the visual design of sets and costumes in movies must be such an untapped resource for those attempting to recreate past environments in an engaging way… I can feel a blog post coming on there…

  4. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology: My best, and my worst. | Archaeology, Academia and Access

  5. Great post Emily – thanks. The world of archaeological reconstruction is slowly picking up on the amazing imagery seen in the world of gaming. In particular photo-realism is catching on. Peter Lorimer (http://www.pighill.net/) is one artist that springs to mind immediately – I’m working with him on a project at the moment. Also see the work of Marcus Abbott (http://www.marcusabbott.org) and Peter Urmston (http://www.peteurmston.co.uk/).

    You’re right – that Viking longhouse is up there with the best reconstructions I’ve seen! I’m lucky in that my job allows me to commission recons, imagery and audio-visual, but it isn’t something that all archaeologists get the chance to do. As a player of Skyrim myself, I’d like to think it inspires me in visualising the past. Commissioning reconstructions is fascinating and really challenges your archaeological knowledge and forces you to imagine how the past actually appeared.

    Good luck with that thesis!

    • Hi Sue,

      Can’t believe I hadn’t replied to this earlier – apologies!

      Thanks so much for the useful links! I think that I will be lucky enough to have a seminar lead by Marcus Abbot in the next few weeks.

      Thanks for your well wishes, they will be much needed!

  6. Fantastic post!
    I play Lord of the Rings Online, which has recently expanded into the Rohan area. Whilst Tolkien obviously based the Rohirrim on Scandinavian cultures, the game developers have even gone so far as to place actual archaeological artefacts and artwork in the game, slightly modified to make them more appropriate for Middle-earth. As an archaeology graduate, these sorts of things are so fun to find – and I love Skyrim too! =)

    • Hi Rinn, thanks for your comment! That’s very interesting, something that would be very relevant in my Masters thesis! I love the idea of virtual worlds developing their own, hugely rich, material cultures. Interesting question – Just because a culture is digital, does that mean it’s not as important or real as any other culture?

  7. Reblogged this on Southwest China Heritage Watch and commented:
    The author of Archaeology, Academia & Access explains why she thinks the world of archaeology needs game developers and gamers. Imagine how fantastic it would be to have better access to digital reconstructions of China’s ancient buildings and cities..

  8. As a game developer this makes me happy to read. I fear you have failed to touch on one important argument though and that is that we need you guys just as much as you might need us. The desire, at least for me, to make games comes from the desire to create worlds separate from this one that I want to occupy. For this I can draw on a number of sources both abstract and concrete but a larger pool of inspiration is never going to be a bad thing.

    I *want* a lot to make a game, in the vein of Dwarf Fortress (you should look it up it’s fantastic) but based around… olden times. I dunno like spears and stuff I guess… see that is why I need a pet archaeologist in my life. I’m not yet confident enough in my abilities to attempt something on this scale but when I am I will be glad that Emily exists.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that while there is the multi million dollar industry there are also little guys like me who really just want to make things. If you want an engaging and pretty visualisation of a stone age fort you just have to reach out and inspire someone.

    • I couldn’t agree more! I did neglect to mention that innate desire of game developers (and everyone, really) to create visually stunning things. And I probably missed out loads more things that I hope other people pick up on them and comment!

      When you want to create Dig Tycoon or a Prehistoric survival game – I’M HERE. WAITING.


      In all seriousness, you should post about it, too! I’d love to read someone else’s opinion on the subject.

      In fact I’m starting to think maybe I should’ve found out more people’s opinions on the subject rather than blurting my uninformed one out first…

      • No, it’s all about the discussion. If you blurt things out (like you say you did) then that gives more people the opportunity to express their views by telling you you’re wrong.

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